What Elmore Leonard Tells Us About Character Ownership

This week at the Barnes & Noble Review, editor-in-chief James Mustich has a lengthy and illuminating conversation with Elmore Leonard to coincide, more or less, with the publication of Leonard’s new novel ROAD DOGS. Granted, I’m on record as having particular issues with Leonard’s oeuvre – I recognize he is a master even as I have something of a tin ear to his style of writing, with the most recent exception of THE HOT KID – but ROAD DOGS in particular struck me as an odd creature. Parsing Leonard’s comments on the book to Mustich, I think I understand why:

JM: In the new book, you bring back three characters: Jack Foley from Out of Sight, Cundo Rey from LaBrava, and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap. What drew you back to these characters in particular?

I didn't think I'd done enough with Cundo Rey and Dawn in those earlier
books. I liked Cundo Rey a lot. He's a show-off, he's a go-go dancer,
and all that. And I was never sure if Dawn was actually psychic
[LAUGHS] — but she was psychic enough to say, when she was talking on
the phone to somebody, "Why don't you put the light on? I can't see
you." So I wonder, is she faking? And I'm not sure.

JM: And Foley?

EL: Because George Clooney played Foley, and I thought
it was one of his best pictures — no doubt about it. I thought he'd
want to do another one. Well, [LAUGHING] he hasn't read it yet, and
he's had it — oh, god, he's had it probably eight or nine months.

What was it like writing for Foley's character this time, with Clooney
in your head? Was it more difficult than creating the pre-Clooney Foley
in the first book?

EL: It worked — because I could hear Clooney. Can't you hear Clooney?

JM: Oh yes. From start to finish. You found that to be a happy coincidence, rather than being problematic in any way?

EL: Sure. I couldn't bring back one of my favorite
characters, Stick, because Burt Reynolds played him, and if I think of
Burt Reynolds as Stick, it won't work. [LAUGHS]

  Leonard's done this sort of thing before (BE COOL, anyone?) But ROAD DOGS in particular spun its story at a remove because it was apparent to me that Foley was George Clooney-playing-Foley instead of the actual character, which automatically narrows the range of possibilities for the reader. Leonard, understandably, might now associate Foley with Clooney because OUT OF SIGHT, the movie reached a much wider audience than the book ever could (because movie audiences are, and probably will always be, significantly greater than book readership) but what of readers who haven't seen the movie &#8211; or who have, but reject the celluloid depiction of a given character because they have their own indelible image and voice associated with the character? And if an author is so willing to cede his or her vision to Hollywood, what does it say for their authorial vision?

  Such questions resonate even more when looking back at <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123880307592488761.html">Alexander McCall Smith's essay in the Wall Street Journal</a> two months ago about the intense personal relationships readers forge with certain characters who become, in their minds, beloved. And woe be those who deviate from readerly expectations:

<p class="blockquote" style="margin-left: 40px;">
  For the author, this sense that the reader has of the reality of the<br /> story has serious implications for how characters are treated in<br /> novels. It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and<br /> tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally<br /> acceptable standpoint. A writer who told a story of, say, rape or<br /> genocide but did so from a neutral or, worse still, complicit position<br /> would be given very short shrift indeed. Readers and critics would be<br /> on to him in no time at all; indeed a book like that would be unlikely<br /> to be published at all. Why? If it is only a story, where is the harm?

<p class="blockquote" style="margin-left: 40px;">
  Stories have an effect in this world. They are part of our moral<br /> conversation as a society. They weigh in; they change the world because<br /> they become part of our cultural history. There never was an Anna<br /> Karenina or a Madame Bovary, even if there might have been models, but<br /> what happened to these characters has become part of the historical<br /> experience of women. When J.K. Rowling revealed in New York that<br /> Professor Dumbledore was gay, the announcement was widely welcomed. One<br /> would have thought that it would make no earthly difference to anything<br /> whether a fictional character had a particular sexual preference, but<br /> it did: People applauded and applauded. That must have been because<br /> they felt that this announcement had some significance for the<br /> real-life issue of accepting gay people fully.

  McCall Smith brings up larger issues than Leonard generally deals with, and certainly does not in ROAD DOGS, but I can't help wondering if, in deliberately pleasing the crowd, Leonard missed out on stamping his authorial authority that much more.